A rather odd pairing of books last week and this weekend – Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead and The Haunting by Shirley Jackson. I think Whitehead’s Underground Railroad would have paired better with The Haunting. I read The Underground Railroad last year, and enjoyed is the wrong word, but I was enraptured and terrified by it. If you lived under a rock last year, it’s a sort of magical realism version of a young woman escaping slavery in the deep south traveling on the underground railroad through several different states. It is incredibly creepy, and pretty horrifying because although it is not exactly historically accurate, everything the young woman suffers did in fact happen to African Americans, just not exactly in that time period. I’m always really confused when people say they ‘enjoyed’ it. But, it’s a great book.

 

Sag Harbor is a very different book. Essentially, it’s a collection of short stories about Benji/Ben’s (he’s trying to dump his childhood nickname) summer in Sag Harbor when he’s 15. There’s a narrative arc in each chapter, but not much of a narrative to the book as a whole, it’s just the story of Benji and his summer, no climax, no catharsis really. I really enjoyed Whitehead’s writing — Benji is funny and sad all at once, for example talking about visiting the orthodontist:

He was an okay guy. I like the way he said, “You might feel a slight pressure,” as if this were a rarity and not a constant state of being.

And telling us his plan when all the teenage boys are having a battle with their BB guns:

I was going to wait for one of the [other team] to recon my way and then ambush them, a favorite tactic of mine to this day. Wait for the right moment in an argument with a loved one and then ambush them with some hurt I’ve held on to for years, the list of indictments nurtured in the darkness of my hideout and say, “Gotcha!” See how you ruined me.

The book is really only similar to The Underground Railroad in that it discusses race and racism in complex ways. Benji is a middle class African American, someone who’s parents own a summer house, who goes to prep school, doctor father/lawyer mother, but he’s still black. The most interesting part of the book for me was reading about how all the characters negotiate race. The book also touches on domestic violence, Benji’s father is emotionally abusive towards his wife and his children, and physically abusive to Benji at least once that we hear about. Perhaps like life, this situation never resolves or really changes:

This was how my mother disappeared, word by word. … Something happened to my mother in her life that she never defended or protected herself. That she never defended or protected us, when it was our turn. I don’t know what it was. I suppose it was the same thing that prevented me from defending or protecting her, once I was old enough. I kept my mouth shut and watched TV.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson kind of disappointed me; I wanted it to have a crazy surprise horror like The Lottery, and it kind of doesn’t. It isn’t your typically scary story though, because Jackson leaves everything hanging at the end. I sort of feel like, can I really spoil a story for you that was published more than 50 years ago and has been made into two movies? But, hey SPOILERSSSSSS!

The story is about Hill House, which has been the site of two tragic deaths, two unhappy childhoods, and one suicide in the eighty years it’s been standing. Also, the guy who built it (and lost two wives there) built everything slightly wrong, none of the angles of the house are right angles, all the doors are slightly off center, the rooms are kind of arranged so that many have no windows. Dr. Montague hears about the house and decides he will try to scientifically investigate the paranormal there (although he never really seems to do any science other than trying to measure a cold spot?). He invites a number of others who have shown paranormal abilities and Eleanor and Theodora take the invitation. The party is rounded out by Luke, the heir to the house. The four of them do experience a ton of creepy stuff in the house, but it never resolves into a coherent narrative. Are the ghosts the wives? The women who committed suicide? Something else? I have no idea.

Obviously, Jackson intended to leave everything open. And she hints that the house is making the characters into unreliable narrators. The story ends with one character maybe killing herself? But Jackson doesn’t even definitely tell us that! I did think, as I was reading it, wow this isn’t that scary. But I will say, while this was no Fever Dream, it did stick with me and ended up being extremely creepy to think about.

Currently reading: Trying to finish Happiness before going on vacation. Trying to decide how many books it is reasonable to take on vacation… Erp.